Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine (Magnolia Pictures, NR)

Jobs 75It’s a conventional, well-done documentary.





Jobs 500

Perhaps the best thing that ever happened to personal computing, ranking not far below the invention of the integrated circuit, is the entry of Apple Computers into the market. Seriously, my idea of hell is a world in which the only computers available are based on IBM models, and the only operating system is designed by Microsoft. As the joke goes, if it wasn’t for Apple, our computers would be running on DOS 73.1.

So I’m a huge fan not only of Apple products (I’m writing this on a Macbook Air) but also of the innovative approach the company brought to the computing business. Instead of being awkward and frustrating products that only a geek could love, Apple products aim to be beautifully-designed, user-friendly consumer goods that are also extremely powerful pieces of technology. A lot of the credit for the shift in thinking that made that revolution possible goes to Steve Jobs.

What I have never understood is the idolatry that surrounded Jobs, the belief that he was not only a genius designer and extremely successful businessman, but also some kind of a secular saint who prospered by making the world a better place for everyone. Getting at the truth behind Jobs’ carefully cultivated public image is the purpose of Alex Gibney’s documentary Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.

The Steve Jobs that emerges in Gibney’s portrait is a guy whose worldly successes and grand public gestures are balanced by a cold-hearted ruthlessness and amazing disregard for normal human decency. This is a consistent pattern with Jobs, from early dick moves like cheating his friend and collaborator Steve Wozniak out of a bonus payment and claiming sterility to try to avoid paying child support, to more recent corporate titan power moves like limiting his employees’ ability to change jobs, reacting with excessive ruthlessness to journalists who got a scoop on an Apple product, and claiming to know nothing about stock option fraud that he and many other Apple executives participated in.

Gibney has a larger purpose than just presenting a corrective to the image of Jobs as a saint in a black turtleneck, however. He sees the worship of Jobs (seriously, the film shows people making shrines to him) and the products he was instrumental in designing as a reflection of, and a contributor to, a disturbing trend in modern society.

Chrisann Brennan, the woman who bore Jobs’ first daughter (the one he tried to avoid supporting, despite being worth millions at the time) said “he didn’t know what real connection was” while others have noted that Jobs had a genius for connecting with products but not with people. Gibney argues that the widespread use of Apple products like the iPod and the iPhone encourage us to become more self-centered, isolating ourselves from the people around us. This is a debatable point not entirely supported by scientific research, and a distraction from the main narrative of this film.

I would expect any Alex Gibney film to be nothing less than a thoroughly professional product, and Steve Jobs does not disappoint on this score. It’s a conventional, well-done documentary, including lots of archival materials that will be new even to people who have been following the Jobs/Apple narrative closely for years, and new interviews that illuminate different aspects of that narrative. At over two hours, it does feel long, and while everything on screen is interesting, it’s not all necessary for this particular film. I’m thinking particularly of the several interludes featuring beauty shots of a Zen Buddhist temple in Japan—once Gibney successfully establishes that Jobs was influenced by the aesthetics of Zen, but not the philosophy, there’s no need to keep returning to that point. | Sarah Boslaugh

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